When you have young children, at some stage in their early lives, you’re going to be faced with making educational choices one their behalf. Whether you’re looking for a childcare centre for your baby, considering a kindergarten for your preschooler, or checking out schools for children about to enter into formal education, there’s a lot to consider when making this choice.
Not only do you want ensure that your child is going to be happy – so matching your child to the right provider for them is an important decision – but you also need to know that their early learning experiences away from home are going to be enriching and rewarding. That wherever you send them, they will enjoy days filled with stimulating learning rather than glorified babysitting.
And while much energy and discussion centres on getting the choice of primary school right, it is just as important to put the same amount of care and energy into choosing the best childcare for those pre-school years because this is where children first engage with learning.
What should parents look for?
But without spending a lot of time in a centre or school themselves, how can parents confidently make a choice? Sandra Cheeseman, a lecturer at the Department of Educational Studies – Early Childhood at Macquarie University, says that there are a couple of key things you can quickly observe on a visit.
“The prevailing wisdom is that children learn through play and if you offer them enough opportunities to play, they’ll naturally learn,” she says. “But evidence now shows that while play does work, it needs to be supported by adults in a way that is appropriate to their age.”
So a good sign of a happy learning environment is one where the teachers and caregivers are getting actively involved in the children’s play.
“Young children – babies, toddlers included – have a great capacity for problem-solving and creative thinking and a rich learning environment encourages them to stretch themselves.
The idea that keeping young children safe and cared for and nurtured is enough is old-fashioned – evidence shows that children respond very positively to activities that require some intellectual rigour too.”
But if you are thinking that this sounds a lot like formal education for littlies – with visions of tiny tots sitting at little desks doing tests and worksheets that are marked and ranked, fear not!
“This is not about pulling the curriculum down from school so that kids are taught concepts earlier,” Sandra explains reassuringly, “but instead about offering them a stimulating environment with adults modelling concepts that will stimulate learning. It’s about adults helping children in their care and demonstrating and then letting kids have a go.”
The signs of happy learning
A good scenario is one where the children are actively engaged with a rich curriculum with adults who are actively supporting their learning by being involved, prompting and modelling and encouraging further exploration.
“Despite what we might think, young children find it hard to engage with very open-ended play,” says Sandra. “They will often move on from the activity quickly once they have taken it as far as they can on their own, but if an adult gets involved then the kids stay engaged for longer and learn a little something more along the way. Adults can model the next step for kids.”
When should parents be concerned?
Sandra advises that there may be cause for concern if you see children wandering around not engaging with any activity for longer than a few minutes.
“We want a learning environment that is rich and meaningful but not overwhelming or overstimulating,” she says. “Putting more toys and games into the environment doesn’t help enrich the learning – it needs to be thoughtful. Play is not enough. Surrounding kids with a lovely environment and a load of toys is not enough. Kids learn more when there is something interesting to learn.
In short, teachers should be actively involved in the children’s play, guiding and modelling. Without that, many young children will lose focus and find it hard to engage with any one activity.
“Kids thrive on repetition and novelty – so a mixture of the old and familiar and the new – and getting the balance right is the key.”
Sandra Cheeseman will be speaking at In Pursuit of Playfulness, Curiosity and Innovation on 13 August 2016 at UTS, Sydney. For more information and to book tickets click here.